Canada Dogsledding, April 2009

It was a warm afternoon with blue skies, so most of the evening was spent outside. By now everyone had shed their heavy parkas and jackets. It was more than 30°C warmer than just a couple of days earlier.

Dinner in the snow Dinner in the snow

It was our penultimate dinner from plastic bags.

The type of dinner during the trip has surprised me.

Which is probably just another way of saying that I hadn't properly thought about it.

I had implicitly assumed that it would either be some sort of freeze-dried expedition food or that there would be some sort of stew, broth or similar in a big pot.

What we got was home-cooked food in heat-sealed double plastic bags. For dinner, snow was shovelled into a big pot and when it had turned into water, the bags were put in and heated.

Food bags Cooking corner

Which made a lot of sense. The main advantage of dried food is the weight and space reduction, which is why it is used as 'expedition food'. But on this trip, we had carrying capacity in excess. There was lots of room on the skimmers (and even on our dog sleds) and additional weight would not have mattered at all. So there wasn't any reason to used dried food.

But actually cooking stuff in a pot would have required cleaning it afterwards and that would have been problematic, since you want to soil the landscape as little as possible.

And heating sealed bags in hot water also left us with hot water during dinner, so we could fill our flasks and thermos with it and had water for the dogs as well.

And since the 'dinner in a bag' was home made, there was a lot of variety in it, which you probably wouldn't get if you used commercial 'heat and eat' meals, while the double bags made sure that none of the food would spill into the water. And there wasn't even the need to add preservatives to the food or 'vacuum seal' the bags, since keeping stuff frozen is not really difficult in an environment like this.

So while there's probably food that can't be prepared that way (fries would probably be sort of wobbly), there was quite a bit of variation in the dinners. And it makes a lot of sense, given the situation (weight and volume is no problem, freezing is available, but just one cooker and no cleaning up, please).

Then it was time to take some pictures of the dogs.

Sled dog and me

Which was actually harder than I assumed, since the dogs are 1) curious and 2) friendly, so instead of sitting there and looking pretty, they took an interest.

As a result, I have now a good selection of pictures of dog noses.

Sled dog nose, probably Arwen

I also seem to have a very interesting (or at least smelly) thumb.

Sled dog Nahanni smelling thumb

But at least some dogs were lazy enough not to get up and provided good photo opportunities.

Sled dog Caesar, resting Sled dog Paila, resting Sled dog Kona, looking alert

The oddest of the bunch is probably Molson, who is probably a sled dog, but we were never sure whether Molson might just be a spy for the polar bear cavalry...

Molson - sled dog looking like a polar bear Molson - sled dog looking like a polar bear

(Though, like all the other dogs, Molson is just a big softie. But quite heavy as a lap dog.)

The last evening 'out there'.

Camp on frozen river shore

I was looking a bit rough, but quite happy. (Though beards don't really suit me and stubble even less...)

Rough, but happy

Since there was only a short distance to cover the next day, we had breakfast an hour later than usual.

Breakfast preparation

Despite of what I said about dinner preparation and cleaning up, breakfast included (beside some muesli-type food), something fried in a pan. Sometimes 'pan-toasted' bagels, sometimes hash-browns or bacon.

Then it was time to 'hit the road' (or at least the trail) one last time.

By that time I was very impressed by the 'handling' of the dogs. At one of the breaks, I once again had Dino and Blue standing right next to me (they had stopped where they were supposed to, but after their usual three minutes, they had started again without being asked...) and Rod asked me to move forward a bit. Since there was only one about ten meters distance between my lead dogs and the sled in front of me, I was a bit worried that the same thing would happen to me (namely, my lead dogs would be standing next to Dan), but surprisingly enough, I was able to tell the dogs to go (yelling "Hup-Up", but standing on the brakes) and immediately tell them to stop ("Whoa!", while hitting the brakes hard) and they really went for five meters and obediently stopped. I was very impressed that such 'fine control' handling was possible with such a large team of dogs.

Another thing that surprised me in relation to dog handling is that most of the 'work' on the trip is to slow the dogs down. A lot.

The dogs themselves have basically two gears, walking and running. What they really have are gaits, trot and lope, but in 'handling' the sled it's pretty much like changing gears... (Technically they gave three gaits, namely pace, trot and lope, which are sometimes called walk, trot and cantering, but for the following, pace and trot are more or less the same.)

What the dog wants to do is to lope, since that's the fastest and, initially, easiest gait.

But in most cases, it should trot. Partly, because it is less tiring in the long run. While a dog may be quite fast when loping, the dog is worn out quickly, while dogs can literally trot all day long, covering a larger distance at the end of the day. And mostly, because there's a higher chance of injury when the dogs are loping. This has partly to do with the speed itself (when running fast and stepping into a snow drift, the dog has little time to pull the leg out, before being pulled onwards by the rest of the team, while this is less critical when the speed is slower), but seemingly also with the movement itself, which stretches a number of muscles farther then trotting and also puts greater stress on the front legs (if I understood that correctly), while the weight is more equally distributed when trotting.

I also assume that the trot is better for the dog in the long term. They arch their backs when they are loping, which probably puts stress on their spine. It's probably similar to lifting heavy objects from the floor. The 'natural' way of doing it is just to bend over and pick it up, but that may hurt your spine, so the 'right' way of doing it is to bend your knees and use your leg muscles for lifting. So maybe it's the same for dogs. Loping is what they want to do, but trotting is less risky.

Since a couple of dogs were injured on the way towards Herschel Island, we were advised to keep the dogs trotting all the time, to avoid any further injuries.

But the dogs really want to lope. And there's no command to just tell them to trot. (Well, there is the command "Easy" or "eeeaaaaaasssssssy", which supposedly lets them know that they don't need to rush. Didn't make any difference though, as far as I noticed. Maybe it works if you are alone with a dog team. With another dog sled in front, they always tried to run and catch up.)

So the only way to get them to trot is to slow them down, since they can't lope at slow speeds. And the way to do that is to stand on the brake (or the drag mat, which can also be used for slowing down, but does not have sufficient braking power for stopping). But if you stand on the brake, the dogs try running even harder, so you have to brake even harder. Which makes the dogs try even harder. And it's very impressive how much force you have to use on the brakes to slow the sled down sufficiently to make them trot, especially with a team of ten dogs. They have a lot of pulling power.

So you're feeling quite mean most of the time. Here are these great dogs, running long distances in harsh environments, pulling you and your gear. And you make their life even harder by standing heavy on the brakes. But in the end it works. Pulling power is not a critical resource - they got lots of it, so even when making pulling very hard, the dogs will not be exhausted by the end of the day. And we had only one minor dog injury on the way back, so trotting safely paid off.

And while it seemed that we were going fairly slow with all the braking and the dogs 'just' trotting, it was always surprising when free-running dogs were beside the sled and they were running, when you thought that you were travelling at walking speed at best.

Checking the GPS data, I later found out that the 'trotting speed' on flat terrain without obstacles was usually about 12-15 km/h.

Sled dogs in the morning

The final destination was a small lake a bit north of Aklavik, which we reached in the early afternoon.

This is were the trip to Herschel had started and were the two trucks to bring the guides, dogs and equipment back to Whitehorse were parked.

The final meters of the trip. (And while this is clearly not a trot, Rod, who owns the dogs, drove the dogs for the last 200 meters to cross a street and knew what he was doing.)

The final meters of the tour

Time to set up the camp one last time and give the dogs a chance to lie in the sunshine.

I have no idea whether they knew that this was the end of the trip (though having the transport truck nearby was probably a hint for the more experienced ones) or whether it was the warm weather, but the dogs were quite relaxed.

Setting up the main tent Setting up the smaller tents Sled dog Molson relaxing Sled dog Dino relaxing beside tents

We used the rest of the day to walk to Aklavik.

The museum was in a pretty bad shape and not really worth a visit...

Aklavik museum sign Aklavik museum ruin Aklavik museum interior

But at least we found the main attraction, the grave of the Mad Trapper

I was a bit surprised about the question mark after his name on the grave, which looked a bit like there weren't quite sure whether they got the 'Mad Trapper', but they were just not sure on whether Albert Johnson was his real name.

Mad Trapper grave, Aklavik Mad Trapper grave, Aklavik

Which isn't really hard to find, since, given the size of Aklavik, you can see about all of it in about ten minutes. Walking slowly.

But there was one peculiar attraction (at least for us). A cafe (well, the was still open (it was about 9pm on a Sunday evening in, essentially, a small village in the middle of nowhere, so we didn't expect that at all) and they had a toilet. (Not that exciting, I know, but after more than a week of squatting somewhere in the snow, it provided a certain convenience.)

While being in the cafe, a couple came in and asked for directions to the 'Grave of the Mad Trapper'. The had driven over the ice road from Inuvik and wanted to see the only attraction of Aklavik before heading back. So I gave directions to it (which basically amounted to "Down the street, past the post office and the tourist association and turn right the next street. Big yellow sign, can't miss it." There aren't that many streets in Aklavik. And then they asked whether we were locals. All of us were looking pretty unkempt, unshaven and a bit smelly. And I had been talking to them for a minute or two and I'm not sure what my English really sounds like, but I'm quite sure that it's not a 'proper' Canadian accent. So the jump from "odd, scruffy looking people that speak an oddly accented English" to "are you locals" gives a pretty dim view of the outside perception of Aklavik. (Though actually, they probably just tried to make conversation.)

After walking back to the lake, it was time to get some sleep, since we were going to have an early start next morning. We would be heading on the ice road to Inuvik and due to the warm weather, the surface was going to be thaw during the day, so the plan was to get going as early as possible.

One last look out of the tent before closing the flap and going to sleep.

Tent view at dogs

Only a quick breakfast in the morning to speed up things (we had also filled our thermos the previous evening, so there would be no need to heat water in the morning) and it was time to break up the camp and put everything (sleds, skimmers, snowmobiles, gear and dogs) on the trucks.

Mini-breakfastp Dismantling the camp Loading the dogs

Time for one 'survivor picture' of all the guides and clients together and then it was time to hit the (ice) road.

Group picture after Herschel Island trip

Even though we hit the road pretty early and the sky was a bit overcast, so the sun didn't it the surface directly, the ice road was already more like a slush road.

Slushy ice road

When, after an hour of driving, we pass the branch that leads to Tuktoyaktuk, we are surprised that the road is already closed for the season.

Closed ice road Cracks in ice road

But we make it to Inuvik without any problems.

We clients take the plane back to Whitehorse, while the guides enjoy the comfort of staying at a hotel in Inuvik before starting the long drive (1220 kilometers) down the Dempster Highway and the Klondike Highway back to Whitehorse.

The next day, the ice road to between Aklavik and Inuvik closes for the season as well. We had been incredibly lucky to make it back to Inuvik as planned. Had the road been closed a day earlier, they would have chartered the Twin Otter again for a couple of round trips to fly us (clients, guides and dogs) to Inuvik. While we (the clients) would have flown to Whitehorse as planned, the guides would have needed to find some transport for thirty dogs back to Whitehorse. And then would have needed to return about two month later, when the ice on the river had vanished, and use some barge or ferry to transport the trucks with the snowmobile, sleds and gear to Inuvik, to be able to drive them home. It wouldn't have been critical, since it was the last trip of the season and spring was pretty much in evidence in Whitehorse by that time, so they didn't need the trucks, snowmobiles and sleds for anything else, but it would have been a lot of additional work, cost and organization. So we were lucky that we could just drive along the ice road and unaware how tight the timeframe really was.

On to part 4